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One afternoon a little more than a year ago, Ginette walked into a women's bathroom at the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service'sKrome Service Processing Center in western Miami-Dade County. There in front of her, sitting on a toilet but fully clothed, was a leering, uniformed detention officer. For a long moment the scene didn't quite register with Ginette, a 22-year-old detainee from Haiti who has lived most of her life in Naples, on Florida's Gulf Coast.
"I was like, whoa. I froze," she recalls, smiling nervously and settling her five-month-old daughter on her lap. Ginette (this is a pseudonym, as are the names of all detainees and guards in this story) is speaking in her attorney's office in Miami, and she's finding it a bit awkward trying to reconstruct the surreal incidents that were all too common at Krome during the eighteen months she was there. (She was released last fall but still awaits deportation.)
"I thought I had walked in on this guy who was using the bathroom, and I'm just staring at him," Ginette goes on. Her large brown eyes open wider. "Then he started groaning, touching himself and saying, “Come here,' and I'm saying, “No way.' He was calling to me, reaching his hands out. Finally Nina [another detainee] came in. The officer told Nina to tell me to calm down. Then Nina jumps on his lap and starts dancing with him. I was so scared. The officer was touching Nina all over. Nina was doing a lap dance for him. Then he told me to lift up my skirt. He said, “What's the big deal? Just do it.' I felt so violated. But I did it. I felt so cheap, and it seemed like I was in there forever. Then he asked me to play with my breasts. He said to me: “If you walk out now, somebody is going to find out what's going on,' so I started touching my breasts and he started rubbing my breasts. Then he gave Nina $50, and he put $30 in my pocket. Nina told me I'd just been living in Naples far too long, that I was too sheltered, thinking this was such a big deal. Then I walked out. I know deep in my soul I could have run out of the bathroom and screamed, “Stop this now!' But I was afraid to, and I didn't want to upset him."
Ginette is one of a score of current and former Krome detainees who, during the past twelve months, have described to federal investigators an obscure world of abuse, harassment, and intimidation. Since May 2000 four divisions of the U.S. Department of Justice have been investigating a long list of allegations of sexual misconduct at Krome, a twenty-year-old facility documented on several occasions to be among the most mismanaged and corruption-plagued immigrant detention centers in the nation. As part of the investigation, at least two former detainees have testified before a federal grand jury in Miami. In account after account, the same picture emerges: a cadre of male Krome officers treating female detainees as their personal sexual property -- using their place of employment as a "dating game," in the detainees' words -- and taking advantage of their victims' precarious immigration status and problematic backgrounds to coerce sexual favors from them and scare them into silence.
None of the women who have come forward with sexual-abuse allegations is a U.S. citizen. Most have committed crimes in the past and were turned over to the INS upon completion of their sentences. The 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act requires the detention of all noncitizens who have an arrest record (even if they are acquitted of the charges), regardless of their ties to this country or the severity of the offense, and makes it likely they'll be deported. Indeed many of the detainees who have spoken to investigators about sexual abuse at Krome already have been deported -- never to be seen or heard from by their attorneys again -- or transferred to distant detention facilities. That is hardly surprising, since these women have almost no legal rights and lack the attributes that could lend them credibility. "The presumption is because they have an interest in giving information of this nature, that information is discounted by prosecutors when it shouldn't be," says a Miami attorney who is representing one detainee and requested anonymity because of possible future litigation.
Yet it is significant that all the women tell essentially the same story, naming the same names and the same sites at Krome, describing the same feelings of fear, powerlessness, and shame. The one thing they do have on their side, regardless of their own mistakes and failings, is that sexual abuse and assault are crimes no matter who are the victims. As a result of the federal inquiry, one Krome guard, Lemar Smith, was charged last August with twice raping a transsexual asylum-seeker. This past month, however, the felony assault charges were reduced to misdemeanors in exchange for a guilty plea. The asylum-seeker was deported to Mexico.